The Hunt for the Banjo Orchestra Records

Guest blog by Colin Hancock

            The six sides recorded by Gus Haenschen’s Banjo Orchestra in 1916 are rare—very rare. In fact, before The Missing Link project was compiled, chances are no one had heard all six of them since they were first released. Gus himself stated that he never personally owned copies of the discs, and the Haenschen family currently doesn’t own any copies either. Only around 200 of each title were pressed in the first place, and it took locating them to realize just how rare they really are.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch June 27, 1916

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One Night in June . . . Looking for the First Jazz Records in Scott Joplin’s Stomping Ground

It’s only been a little more than a year since Colin Hancock first wrote us up with a rough idea about reissuing the six personal records made by Gus Haenschen and his banjo orchestra in 1916. We’d already released one of them, “Sunset Medley,” on our 2003 issue, Stomp and Swerve—and we’re big fans. So, had Colin located the other five discs?

Well, not exactly.

He had a line on four of the six, thanks to David Sager and Mike Kieffer, with a strong likelihood of the fifth. When that fifth came through, from Rob Chalfen in Boston, we were all getting pretty excited. So close! There was one more, elusive, with rumors of it being in the collections of two mutual friends: “Maple Leaf Rag,” the legendary piece by Joplin, performed by one of his students while the master was still alive. Sager knew where to find it. He told us to go to Joplin’s one-time home, St. Louis, and there we would find it in the collection of the late St. Louis Ragtimer, the great Trebor Tichenor.

Trebor’s daughter Virginia and son-in-law Marty Eggers took David’s advice, went searching among his thousands of 78s and found it! Marty and Virginia, who are spending time between Oakland and St. Louis, graciously worked out a time for us all to meet, Colin drove up from Texas, and we were joined by the fantastic musician T. J. Müller to do a transfer session.

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Meet Johnnie Myers

Some of you like to research the old acoustic-era artists, searching for authoritative answers to their dates of birth and death or greater details on their lives than has been known heretofore. Maybe you have had the experience of digging in on an artist in newspapers, genealogy records, and other online archival databases, only to come up completely empty after hours and hours of fruitless, exasperating effort. Then, after a few weeks, a few months (years even), you decide—silly you—to try again, against your best inclinations.

A couple of weeks ago, we dug in again for the umpteenth time on J. W. Myers, about whom the only general wisdom seems to be “born ca. 1864, Wales; died ca. 1919.” Well, this time, we got a bit lucky.

J. W. Myers

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Questions about the Yiddish Lambert Cylinders on the National Recording Registry

Earlier this year, the Library of Congress released its 2018 inductees onto the National Recording Registry. The oldest items preserved onto the Registry for their “cultural, historical, and aesthetic” significance are titled thusly: Yiddish Cylinders from the Standard Phonograph Company of New York and Thomas Lambert Company. Here’s the Library’s description:

These cylinders originally produced by the Standard Phonograph Company of New York are believed to be the earliest recordings of Yiddish songs. Eventually released by the Thomas Lambert Company of Chicago, these releases (some manufactured in unusually vibrant colors) also represent the first releases by an ethnically-owned and ethnically-focused record company, a risky venture at a time when a US-based audience for foreign-language music had yet to be established. These surviving 20 cylinders of 48 once produced, provide an insight not only into the Yiddish-speaking community of the era but also into the difficult assimilation of Jewish immigrants arriving to America at the turn of the century. In 2016, the Archeophone label lovingly restored and packed the cylinder into a CD-set.

The shout-out in the last line is appreciated, yet there are several things to unpack here.

The only research and writing on the subject of these cylinders is what comes with the above-referenced release: Attractive Hebrews: The Lambert Yiddish Cylinders, 1901-1905 (ARCH 8001). Prior to the unearthing of these rare records by Archeophone’s network partners, no one who had ever written of the existence (in catalogs) of the records had actually heard any of them. Imagine our surprise, then, when the announcements at the beginnings of the cylinders do not refer to the “Lambert Company of Chicago” as on other Lambert records but instead identify themselves as “Standard Record”s. Deep dives into newspapers, city directories, and legal notices turned up very little about this company—only that it existed for about three years in New York City’s theatre district before going bankrupt in 1903. It seems to have been run by a man named George Lando, an optician who promoted his twin product lines—eyeglasses and phonograph records—under the advertisement “To Hear and to See” in the Jewish Daily Forverts in 1901.

September 1903 Lambert catalog (composite) (Courtesy David Giovannoni)

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Some Thoughts on Charles Asbury’s Race and the Question of Passing

Archeophone’s 4  Banjo Songs, 1891-1897 by African American recording pioneer, Charles A. Asbury, is nominated for Best Album Notes, written by myself (Richard Martin) and Ted Olson. We’re very appreciative for this recognition, but there is a misapprehension floating around out Asbury’s background that needs addressing.

Some reviewers have summed up the notes by saying that there is uncertainty about Asbury’s race, and that I take the position he was black. Let me be perfectly clear: there is no uncertainty. Asbury was a light-skinned African American of Spanish origin. From the records we have found, he lived his entire life as a black man, in the company of other 19th-century blacks, and there is no evidence whatsoever that he ever tried to pass for white.

Charles A. Asbury (left) and Korla Pandit (right)

Left, Charles A. Asbury (Debbie Trice); right, Korla Pandit (Painted Wolf, https://jonmwessel.wordpress.com)

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Helvetia Records: Unrealized Ambitious Dreams

(Courtesy Jim Leary)

With the recent acquisition of Helvetia 1002, our upcoming set, Alpine Dreaming, will now have every known release put out by the small Helvetia label in the early 1920s. Thanks to Eric Gallinger for contributing that record to the effort. Eric found the disc at an estate sale in Oregon and, inspired by his wife’s Swiss ancestry, picked it up as an extraordinary type of record. We found him and his kids on their YouTube channel, JEC&T 78’s, and the result is as complete a telling of the Helvetia story as is possible at this point.

Ferdinand Ingold, a Swiss immigrant to Monroe, Wisconsin (the Swiss cheese capital of America) operated a novelty and import company, specializing in post cards such as the lovely and unusual embossed lace postcard shown here. By the mid-1910s he saw a need to supply his like-minded customers of the immigrant community with recordings from their homeland and was able to procure many titles from Switzerland for resale in the U.S. Then Ingold got the idea to start his own record company to make and sell records by the community for the community. Continue reading

Mystery Banjo Players Identified?

Last week we wondered whether record titles, such as those listed in a ca. 1891 catalog of the New Jersey Phonograph Company, might not all have been actually recorded. Then we traced the offerings of Charles Asbury in New Jersey/U.S. Phono. Co. and Columbia catalogs from 1892 through 1897 to see which of his records were “hits”—cylinders likely to have been made again and again over that six-year period. Let’s revisit that 1891 New Jersey pamphlet.

New Jersey Catalog ca. 1891. (Composite; Library of Congress)

As we noted, the names of artists were not provided. This fact surprises many of us today, as we can’t imagine buying a record just to buy a record. It’s the talent that we’re interested in. But in 1891, the recording business was brand new, and the identities of the performers would have meant nothing to consumers. That would change quickly, as experienced exhibitors and arcade owners came to recognize and seek out cylinders by the best performers for their operations.

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